Joan McMurray dropped out in the early 1970s, going off the grid to avoid getting power from Maine Yankee. No nukes for her. No solar either, or not until 1991. A carpenter by trade, she easily made what she calls the transition to insecurity, embracing the adventure in it all, from collecting rainwater to the business of harvesting wood from her 40-acre lot in Columbia to heat the home she’d built.

At 73, she’s still there. Maine Yankee is long gone, and she could have power if she wanted. “I choose not,” she said. The husband she came with left long ago; he couldn’t take the insecurity she thrived on.

It’s a life without a mortgage or utility bills, a life of following the seasons, tapping trees in late winter, harvesting wild blueberries in summer and tending a big garden. A good life in short, one that McMurray would happily continue until the end of her days. But two freak falls, a hip replacement and the subsequent recovery have made her ponder her own limitations as well as an alternative path. Forget harvesting wood, even loading the wood stove becomes a huge challenge after a hip replacement. The arm strength it takes to lift a five-gallon bucket to feed your siphon shower? It’s not there anymore.

“I’m just plain getting too old,” she said.

What do you do when your hard-earned, entrenched-in-sustainability life starts to seem as if it might not be sustainable? It’s a question confronting many in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, back-to-the-land types like McMurray, who have discovered that aging off the grid comes with a unique set of problems. But also assets in the aging process, like the kind of physical activity that can keep you feeling younger longer and impart of sense of ease and resilience when it comes to rolling with the punches. That’s part of what can make it a particularly hard life to say goodbye to.

AARP doesn’t track how many senior citizens might be living off the grid, either in Maine specifically or nationally, said Maine AARP executive director Lori Parham. The Maine Solar Energy Association, which is led by Richard Komp, a 77 year-old who lives off the grid Down East and relies on solar power, like many other older friends – “there are a lot of aging hippies in that part of the world” – doesn’t have hard numbers either.


“At one point we actually tried to count,” Komp said, “and they made it very clear that they never wanted to be counted.”

But the best guess is that hundreds of people in Maine are living off the grid, and like Maine’s overall population, they’re aging. While Komp says some of his off-the-grid friends died without ever leaving their homes, others know they have to come up with a Plan B, albeit reluctantly in some cases.

McMurray, 73, pulls her firewood in a sled from her woodshed to her home.

McMurray, 73, pulls her firewood in a sled from her woodshed to her home. Photo Kevin Bennett


For McMurray, that still-developing plan entails building a second house on her property, little, efficient, maybe just one story and a half – her first fall involved a spiral staircase – and on the grid. She’d live there during the winter months and in the summer, her sister could use it while McMurray went back off the grid. The people who worry about her would worry less in the winter, and it would cut down on physical exertion, like no wood stove to fill.

When she was recovering from her hip replacement, she slept on the couch downstairs, used a walker and relied on the kindness of friends and family.

“It did teach me a lot about humility,” she said. “Besides being a lesson in realism.”


Her son came most weekends and took care of the maintenance she couldn’t get to. McMurray jokes (kind of) that she’s not interested in living past 80, but she’d rather not break another hip. Being on the grid would have some bonuses, she pointed out.

“I’d have hot running water and a vacuum, the things I miss from grid living,” she said. After more than 40 years, there are still things she misses? “Well of course,” she said laughing.

Even before the broken hip, she’d been considering her options. “People were starting to ask me, ‘What are you going to do when you get too old?’ ” McMurray said. “But not my son. He knows I am a survivor.”

After her surgery, her thought process shifted. “It quickened,” she said somberly.


Komp built his house in Jonesport 29 years ago, when he’d already been working within the field of solar energy for decades. His 5.5 acres on Indian Point cost $15,000 and it would have cost him nearly half that to get power lines put in. His was a grand experiment, a chance to “try out the ideas I had.” He gets so much passive solar warmth from the house’s ocean outlook that he uses only a cord of wood a winter. Like McMurray, he collects rainwater, and after filtering, even drinks it. His younger brothers and sister keep track of him, as do his neighbors.


“They watch to make sure that the mail disappears from the mailbox,” he said. He either walks or bikes the 1.5 mile roundtrip to pick it up. “I usually meet one or two people on the road, so they know I’m alive.”

He hasn’t retired yet and continues to teach courses in solar energy around the world, including at a school in Nicaragua, where he has an apartment. That’s his Plan B. “When I start getting so decrepit that I am having problems, I am going to move permanently down to Nicaragua.” His Jonesport house will become the Down East Alternative Design Solar Center.

Joan McMurray washes her dishes by hand using rainwater from her roof that she catches in a barrel and then heats on a stove.

Joan McMurray washes her dishes by hand using rainwater from her roof that she catches in a barrel and then heats on a stove. Photo Kevin Bennett

What’s tricky is knowing just when to make a move. Take Lee Stover, a retired forester and MOFGA board member who lives in Waldo, in a tiny one-room cabin his father built, so tiny that he can almost fill the wood stove from his bed. There’s a natural spring 100 feet away, light from powerful LED flashlights to read by and a propane stove for cooking. “My refrigerator right now is my floor in the corner,” he said. In deep snow, he uses his tractor to transport groceries down his driveway.

“I am 70 and am still reasonably able, but it is becoming increasingly difficult” to navigate the driveway. He’s only four-tenths of a mile from the main road, but keeping the road clear was not possible in a winter like that of 2014-2015. “From the middle of December until basically the end of March, it is a challenge to stay in here.”

He hits the road when he can, heading to North Carolina and then to the Southwest. Roaming around Arizona intrigues him and in the winter months, he knows he’s not missing much at home. A snow that keeps him from his sawmill and woodworking is a snow worth skipping. As for the longterm, he’s philosophical about it.

“I guess I am not too worried,” Stover said. “It is a matter of dealing with it when it comes.”


In a pinch, he could move onto his daughter’s property in Lincolnville. “If we need to, we can build a little camp down there.”

His other option is to build a house near the road. He’d stay off the grid, most likely, but he’d be nearer to people and more open to the sun, and thus solar power. He’d build it himself, inexpensively and with wood from his own lot. But when to make that, or any other, leap?

“If I wait too long then I am not going to be physically able to build the house either. I say to my children, ‘How much do I want to invest in it? How long am I going to be there? At 70, maybe 20 years.’ ”


Margie and Mike Shannon, 79 and 80 respectively, were very happy off the grid for 22 years on Frye Mountain in Knox, with the nearest house a mile away. They heated with wood, used solar for electricity and shoveled for years until they finally invested in a snowblower. Before they came to Maine, they’d lived and worked on wildlife sanctuaries, so they were used to living far from others. But “we realized by the time we turned 70 that (proximity to others) might not be a bad idea,” Margie Shannon said. “Because what if we fell down the stairs?”

They weren’t interested in a traditional retirement community, unsurprisingly, given how untraditionally they had always lived.


But when they heard about the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage complex, which features green homes built to the passive house standard (although not certified as such), that seemed like the kind of change they could handle. In 2012, they moved in. Now they take comfort in knowing they could probably bang on their duplex wall if they needed help, and the noise of the roughly dozen children in the complex is offset by the sense of community.

“It’s really neat,” she said. “More and more we are interacting with other people.”

Mike Shannon is teaching at the Senior College, Margie is gardening with neighbors and they’re living close to net zero in terms of energy usage. Their old ways haven’t left them.

“We found we do carry over some of the habits from living off the grid,” Shannon said. “We tend to not turn many lights on, and we just live rather thoughtful lives.”

This is the kind of model that appeals to Pam Edwards, a 67 year-old living off the grid in Casco, when she thinks about the future. “I can’t see myself living here when I am 80,” she said.

But downsizing and living in a small community of like-minded progressives? That would be worth considering. In the meantime, she does just fine with limited electricity provided by solar panels. “I don’t even have a toaster.” Or a coffeemaker. Her friends bring their own stovetop coffeemaker when they visit.



When they moved to Belfast, the Shannons sold their off-the-grid house in Knox back to the people who had built it in the first place. They might have been lucky. It’s one thing to try to sell a contemporary, passive solar house that looks like it belongs in the pages of Dwell Magazine. But some of these off-the-grid homes have been built to the very specific needs of their individual owners, or jury-rigged to the point where they couldn’t pass inspections and might scare off less intrepid buyers.

Mike and Margie Shannon in their home at the Eco Village in Belfast.

Mike and Margie Shannon in their home at the Eco Village in Belfast. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Because obviously, off-the-grid living is not for everyone – McMurray is far from the only off-the-grid Mainer who said farewell to a partner looking for a life with more conveniences.

But when it is good, it is very, very good. Just ask naturalist and author Bernd Heinrich. He’s about to publish another book, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” which he wrote in his cabin in Western Maine. It has no central heating, no phone, no running water, or fridge (a neighbor lets him use his freezer to hold the meat Heinrich hunts in the fall). But it gives him close to a bird’s-eye perspective on the Maine woods.

“The windows are my blind to the whole outdoors,” Heinrich said. “I love being in the cabin.”

He grew up near Farmington and after retiring from his professorship at the University of Vermont, he relocated to the cabin he’d long visited in the summer.


He’s about to turn 76. There’s no mortgage, barely any expenses, beyond wifi he runs from solar power. He feels lucky. As for the future? It’s just that.

“I don’t have any specific plans that far ahead,” Heinrich said. “Basically, now it is perfect.” If it ceases to be perfect? “If it ever comes to that, I think I would be perfectly happy somewhere else.”

Something Pam Edwards said came to mind, her answer to a question about whether people who live off the grid are better equipped to deal with aging. After all, both are filled with pitfalls, inconveniences and what can be outright indignities.

“Maybe it is that the kind of person who would choose to live off the grid is more able to adapt,” she said.


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